Columbia Law School (Courtesy photo.) Columbia Law School. (Courtesy photo)

On-campus interviews in January? It seems likely.

At least four major Big Law feeder schools have said that law firm summer associate hiring—or OCI—may be moved back from the current late July or early August to further into the coming academic year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And Columbia Law School informed students on Monday that it is moving it’s OCI program to January, making it the first to commit to the change.

The deans at Harvard Law School and Columbia Law School raised that possibility to students in emails Friday that also announced shifts to mandatory pass/fail grading for the spring semester, three days before Columbia officially made the move. In addition, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and New York University School of Law are weighing possible delays to OCI, spokespeople from both campuses confirmed Monday. Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law is also considering alternative OCI dates, said career services dean David Diamond.

“We are considering additional summer research assistant opportunities to help 1L students work with and get to know more faculty, and exploring whether it is feasible to move the law firm hiring process to later in the academic year,” wrote Harvard Law dean John Manning in his email to students.

Columbia Law dean Gillian Lester told students in her Friday email that law firms are pushing for a summer associate hiring delay in her email, which acknowledged that some first-year students are concerned that a pass/fail grading system could hurt their employment prospects.

“We have learned that the major New York firms are strongly considering moving EIP, the job-matching process for private law employment, from the summer following the 1L year to January 2021, which may mitigate this concern, at least for 1Ls,” Lester wrote, using the shorthand for Columbia’s Early Interview Program—the equivalent of OCI.

Columbia’s decision to move summer associate interviewing back to January looks likely to create a wave of other schools doing the same. Columbia and Harvard sent more 2019 J.D. graduates into associate jobs at the largest 100 firms than any other law school. Penn Law, which also sends many students into Big Law, is considering moving OCI to January, among other options, said associate director for communications Rebecca Anderson. (Penn has said it will inform students by Wednesday about any changes to its grading system this semester.)

“As the situation continues to evolve, we stand by ready to respond with effective approaches for our students and for the marketplace,” Anderson said.

One major factor behind calls for delaying OCI is the move by many top law schools to pass/fail grading for the spring semester.

Columbia; Stanford Law School; the University of California, Berkeley School of Law; Cornell Law School; Duke Law School; and Boston College Law School are among the schools that have moved to a mandatory pass/fail system. The University of Michigan Law School and Georgetown University Law Center are allowing students to choose to be graded under the existing scheme or as pass/fail for the semester.

Harvard had taken the same approach as Michigan until Friday, when Manning informed students that pass/fail grading would be mandatory. Some Harvard law students protested the optional nature of the revised grading system, saying it unfairly benefited students who are experiencing relatively little upheaval amid the closure of campus, the move to online classes, and social distancing measures. They also claimed that faculty were quietly telling students not to take the pass/fail option in order to ensure their job opportunities.

Many administrators at other law schools have told students that they are considering moving to pass/fail grading, and more such announcements are expected this week.

But pass/fail grading this semester will make it harder for law firms to hire summer associates if on-campus interviewing is not delayed, according to Gavin White, the global hiring partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

White said in an interview last week that law firms want to see two semesters of grades when hiring summer associates—which isn’t possible when schools are only issuing pass/fail grades this semester. Moving summer associate hiring into January or February would allow firms to take into account grades earned in a candidate’s first semester of their second year, he said.

“If you only have one semester of grades, it’s hard to get a meaningful and realistic assessment of someone’s academic performance,” White said.

Beyond the grading issue, law firms themselves are dealing with major uncertainty about their own businesses now that they are largely operating online. It’s unclear whether firms will even be in a position—or have the need—to dispatch partners to law schools for interviews in late summer.

Typically, law firms will come to campuses to interview incoming 2Ls in late July or early August. But the coronavirus looks likely to force a delay in the start of the upcoming summer associate programs, meaning that those programs could still be in full swing as firms are simultaneously trying to conduct interviews at law schools—a tall order given that firms as also facing unprecedented disruptions in their normal operations.

Both Manning and Lester said their decisions have been guided by a desire to reduce the stress and anxiety that law students are feeling right now.

“At this moment, when you have so much to cope with and deal with, we thought it important for you to be devoting your mental and emotional energy to something other than worrying about whether to opt into [pass/fail] for the semester,” Manning’s email reads.

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